Black House Chapter Twenty-four
D’YAMBA IS A BRIGHT and powerful spell; powerful connections form a web that extends, ramifying, throughout infinity. When Jack Sawyer peels the living poison from Mouse’s eyes, d’yamba first shines within the dying man’s mind, and that mind momentarily expands into knowledge; down the filaments of the web flows some measure of its shining strength, and soon a touch of d’yamba reaches Henry Leyden. Along the way, the d’yamba brushes Tansy Freneau, who, seated in a windowed alcove of the Sand Bar, observes a wry, beautiful young woman take smiling shape in the pool of light at the far end of the parking lot and realizes, a moment before the young woman vanishes, that she has been given a glimpse of the person her Irma would have become; and it touches Dale Gilbertson, who while driving home from the station experiences a profound, sudden yearning for the presence of Jack Sawyer, a yearning like an ache in his heart, and vows to pursue the Fisherman case to the end with him, no matter what the obstacles; the d’yamba quivers flashing down a filament to Judy Marshall and opens a window into Faraway, where Ty sleeps in an iron-colored cell, awaiting rescue and still alive; within Charles Burnside, it touches the true Fisherman, Mr.
Munshun, once known as the Monday Man, just as Burny’s knuckles rap the glass. Mr. Munshun feels a subtle drift of cold air infiltrate his chest like a warning, and freezes with rage and hatred at this violation; Charles Burnside, who knows nothing of d’yamba and cannot hate it, picks up his master’s emotion and remembers the time when a boy supposed dead in Chicago crept out of a canvas sack and soaked the back seat of his car in incriminating blood. Damnably incriminating blood, a substance that continued to mock him long after he had washed away its visible traces. But Henry Leyden, with whom we began this chain, is visited not by grace or rage; what touches Henry is a kind of informed clarity.
Rhoda’s visits, he realizes, were one and all produced by his loneliness. The only thing he heard climbing the steps was his unending need for his wife. And the being on the other side of his studio door is the horrible old man from Maxton’s, who intends to do to Henry the same thing he has done to three children. Who else would appear at this hour and knock on the studio window? Not Dale, not Jack, and certainly not Elvena Morton. Everyone else would stay outside and ring the doorbell.
It takes Henry no more than a couple of seconds to consider his options and work out a rudimentary plan. He supposes himself both quicker and stronger than the Fisherman, who sounded like a man in his mid- to late eighties; and the Fisherman does not know that his would-be victim is aware of his identity. To take advantage of this situation, Henry has to appear puzzled but amiable, as if he is merely curious about his visitor. And once he opens the studio door, which unfortunately he has left unlocked, he will have to act with speed and decisiveness.
Are we up to this? Henry asks himself, and thinks, We’d better be.
Are the lights on? No; because he expected to be alone, he never bothered with the charade of switching them on. The question then becomes: How dark is it outside? Maybe not quite dark enough, Henry imagines ?? an hour later, he would be able to move through the house entirely unseen and escape through the back door. Now his odds are probably no better than fifty-fifty, but the sun is sinking at the back of his house, and every second he can delay buys him another fraction of darkness in the living room and kitchen.
Perhaps two seconds have passed since the lurking figure rapped on the window, and Henry, who has maintained the perfect composure of one who failed to hear the sound made by his visitor, can stall no longer. Pretending to be lost in thought, with one hand he grips the base of a heavy Excellence in Broadcasting award accepted in absentia by George Rathbun some years before and with the other scoops from a shallow tray before him a switchblade an admirer once left at the university radio station as a tribute to the Wisconsin Rat. Henry uses the knife to unwrap CD jewel boxes, and not long ago, in search of something to do with his hands, he taught himself how to sharpen it. With its blade retracted, the knife resembles an odd, flat fountain pen. Two weapons are twice as good as one, he thinks, especially if your adversary imagines the second weapon to be harmless.
Now it has been four seconds since the rapping came from the window by his side, and in their individual ways both Burny and Mr. Mun-shun have grown considerably more restive. Mr. Munshun recoils in loathing from the suggestion of d’yamba that has somehow contaminated this otherwise delightful scene. Its appearance can mean one thing only, that some person connected to the blind man managed to get close enough to Black House to have tasted the poisons of its ferocious guardian. And that in turn means that now the hateful Jack Sawyer undoubtedly knows of the existence of Black House and intends to breach its defenses. It is time to destroy the blind man and return home.
Burny registers only an inchoate mixture of hatred and an emotion surprisingly like fear from within his master. Burny feels rage at Henry Leyden’s appropriation of his voice, for he knows it represents a threat; even more than this self-protective impulse, he feels a yearning for the simple but profound pleasure of bloodletting. When Henry has been butchered, Charles Burnside wishes to claim one more victim before flying to Black House and entering a realm he thinks of as Sheol.
His big, misshapen knuckles rap once more against the glass.
Henry turns his head to the window in a flawless imitation of mild surprise. “I thought someone was out there. Who is it? . . . Come on, speak up.” He toggles a switch and speaks into the mike: “If you’re saying anything, I can’t hear you. Give me a second or two to get organized in here, and I’ll be right out.” He faces forward again and hunches over his desk. His left hand seems idly to touch his handsome award; his right hand is hidden from sight. Henry appears to be deep in concentration. In reality, he is listening as hard as he ever has in his life.
He hears the handle on the studio door revolve clockwise with a marvelous slowness. The door whispers open an inch, two inches, three. The floral, musky scent of My Sin invades the studio, seeming to coat a thin chemical film over the mike, the tape canisters, all the dials, and the back of Henry’s deliberately exposed neck. The sole of what sounds like a carpet slipper hushes over the floor. Henry tightens his hands on his weapons and waits for the particular sound that will be his signal. He hears another nearly soundless step, then another, and knows the Fisherman has moved behind him. He carries some weapon of his own, something that cuts through the mist of perfume with the grassy smell of front yards and the smoothness of machine oil. Henry cannot imagine what this is, but the movement of the air tells him it is heavier than a knife. Even a blind man can see that. An awkwardness in the way the Fisherman takes his next oh-so-quiet step suggests to Henry that the old fellow holds this weapon with both of his hands.
An image has formed in Henry’s mind, that of his adversary standing behind him poised to strike, and to this image he now adds extended, upraised arms. The hands hold an instrument like garden shears. Henry has his own weapons, the best of these being surprise, but the surprise must be well timed to be effective. In fact, if Henry is to avoid a quick and messy death, his timing has to be perfect. He lowers his neck farther over the desk and awaits the signal. His calm surprises him.
A man standing unobserved with an object like garden shears or a heavy pair of scissors in his hands behind a seated victim will, before delivering the blow, take a long second to arch his back and reach up, to get a maximum of strength into the downward stroke. As he extends his arms and arches his back, his clothing will shift on his body. Fabric will slide over flesh; one fabric may pull against another; a belt may creak. There will be an intake of breath. An ordinary person would hear few or none of these telltale disturbances, but Henry Leyden can be depended upon to hear them all.
Then at last he does. Cloth rubs against skin and rustles against itself; air hisses into Burny’s nasal passages. Instantly, Henry shoves his chair backward and in the same movement spins around and swings the award toward his assailant as he stands upright. It works! He feels the force of the blow run down his arm and hears a grunt of shock and pain. The odor of My Sin fills his nostrils. The chair bumps the top of his knees. Henry pushes the button on the switchblade, feels the long blade leap out, and thrusts it forward. The knife punches into flesh. From eight inches before his face comes a scream of outrage. Again, Henry batters the award against his attacker, then yanks the knife free and shoves it home again. Skinny arms tangle around his neck and shoulders, filling him with revulsion, and foul breath washes into his face.
He becomes aware that he has been injured, for a pain that is sharp on the surface and dull beneath announces itself on the left side of his back. The goddamn hedge clippers, he thinks and jabs again with the knife. This time, he stabs only empty air. A rough hand closes on his elbow, and another grips his shoulder. The hands pull him forward, and to keep upright he rests his knee on the seat of the chair. A long nose bangs against the bridge of his own nose and jars his sunglasses. What follows fills him with disgust: two rows of teeth like broken clamshells fasten on his left cheek and saw through the skin. Blood sluices down his face. The rows of teeth come together and rip away an oval wedge of Henry’s skin, and over the white jolt of pain, which is incredible, worse by far than the pain in his back, he can hear his blood spatter against the old monster’s face. Fear and revulsion, along with an amazing amount of adrenaline, give him the strength to lash out with the knife as he spins away from the man’s grip. The blade connects with some moving part of the Fisherman’s body ?? an arm, he thinks.
Before he can feel anything like satisfaction, he hears the sound of the hedge clippers slicing the air before they bite into his knife hand. It happens almost before he can take it in: the hedge clippers’ blades tear through his skin, snap the bones, and sever the last two fingers on his right hand.
And then, as if the hedge clippers were the Fisherman’s last contact with him, he is free. Henry’s foot finds the edge of the door, kicks it aside, and he propels his body through the open space. He lands on a floor so sticky his feet slide when he tries to get up. Can all of that blood be his?
The voice he had been studying in another age, another era, comes from the studio door. “You stabbed me, you asswipe moke.”
Henry is not waiting around to listen; Henry is on the move, wishing he did not feel that he was leaving a clear, wide trail of blood behind him. Somehow, he seems to be drenched in the stuff, his shirt is sodden with it, and the back of his legs are wet. Blood continues to gush down his face, and in spite of the adrenaline, Henry can feel his energy dissipating. How much time does he have before he bleeds to death ?? twenty minutes?
He slides down the hallway and runs into the living room.
I’m not going to get out of this, Henry thinks. I’ve lost too much blood. But at least I can make it through the door and die outside, where the air is fresh.
From the hallway, the Fisherman’s voice reaches him. “I ate part of your cheek, and now I’m going to eat your fingers. Are you listening to me, you moke of an asshole?”
Henry makes it to the door. His hand slips and slips on the knob; the knob resists him. He feels for the lock button, which has been depressed.
“I said, are you listening?” The Fisherman is coming closer, and his voice is full of rage.
All Henry has to do is push the button that unlocks the door and turn the knob. He could be out of the house in a second, but his remaining fingers will not obey orders. All right, I’m going to die, he says to himself. I’ll follow Rhoda, I’ll follow my Lark, my beautiful Lark.
A sound of chewing, complete with smacking lips and crunching noises. “You taste like shit. I’m eating your fingers, and they taste like shit. You know what I like? Know my all-time favorite meal? The buttocks of a tender young child. Albert Fish liked that too, oh yes he did. Mmm-mmm! BABY BUTT! That’s GOOD EATIN’!”
Henry realizes that he has somehow slipped all the way down the unopenable door and is now resting, breathing far too heavily, on his hands and knees. He shoves himself forward and crawls behind the Mission-style sofa, from the comfort of which he had listened to Jack Sawyer reading a great many eloquent words written by Charles Dickens. Among the things he would now never be able to do, he realizes, is find out what finally happens in Bleak House. Another is seeing his friend Jack again.
The Fisherman’s footsteps enter the living room and stop moving. “All right, where the fuck are you, asshole? You can’t hide from me.” The hedge clippers’ blades go snick-snick.
Either the Fisherman has grown as blind as Henry, or the room is too dark for vision. A little bit of hope, a match flame, flares in Henry’s soul. Maybe his adversary will not be able to see the light switches.
“Asshole!” Ahzz-hill. “Damn it, where are you hiding?” Dahmmut, vhey ah you high-dung?
This is fascinating, Henry thinks. The more angry and frustrated the Fisherman gets, the more his accent melts into that weird non-German. It isn’t the South Side of Chicago anymore, but neither is it anything else. It certainly isn’t German, not really. If Henry had heard Dr. Spiegleman’s description of this accent as that of a Frenchman trying to speak English like a German, he would have nodded in smiling agreement. It’s like some kind of outer space German accent, like something that mutated toward German without ever having heard it.
“You hurt me, you stinking pig!” You huhht me, you steenk-ung peek!
The Fisherman lurches toward the easy chair and shoves it over on its side. In his Chicago voice, he says, “I’m gonna find you, buddy, and when I do, I’ll cut your fucking head off.”
A lamp hits the floor. The slippered footsteps move heavily toward the right side of the room. “A blind guy hides in the dark, huh? Oh, that’s cute, that’s really cute. Lemme tell you something. I haven’t tasted a tongue in a while, but I think I’ll try yours.” A small table and the lamp atop it clunk and crash to the floor. “I got some information for you. Tongues are funny. An old guy’s doesn’t taste much different from a young fella’s ?? though of course the tongue on a kid is twice as good as both. Venn I vas Fridz Hahhmun I ade munny dungs, ha ha.”
Strange ?? that extraterrestrial version of a German accent bursts out of the Fisherman like a second voice. A fist strikes the wall, and the footsteps plod nearer. Using his elbows, Henry crawls around the far end of the sofa and squirms toward the shelter of a long, low table. The footsteps squish in blood, and when Henry rests his head on his hands, warm blood pumps out against his face. The fiery agony in his fingers almost swallows the pain in his cheek and his back.
“You can’t hide forever,” the Fisherman says. Immediately, he switches to the weird accent and replies, “Eenuff ov dis, Burn-Burn. Vee huv murr impurdund vurk zu do.”
“Hey, you’re the one who called him an ahzz-hill. He hurt me!”
“Fogzes down fogzhulls, oho, radz in radhulls, dey too ahh huhht. My boor loss babbies ahh huhht, aha, vurze vurze vurze dan uz.”
“But what about him?”
“Hee iz bledding zu deff, bledding zu deff, aha. Led hum dy.”
In the darkness, we can just make out what is happening. Charles Burnside appears to be performing an eerie imitation of the two heads of Parkus’s parrot, Sacred and Profane. When he speaks in his own voice, he turns his head to the left; when speaking with the accent of an extraterrestrial, he looks to his right. Watching his head swivel back and forth, we might be watching a comic actor like Jim Carrey or Steve Martin pretending to be the two halves of a split personality ?? except that this man is not funny. Both of his personalities are awful, and their voices hurt our ears. The greatest difference between them is that left-head, the guttural extraterrestrial, runs the show: his hands hold the wheel of the other’s vehicle, and right-head ?? our Burny ?? is essentially a slave. Since the difference between them has become so clear, we begin to get the impression that it will not be long before Mr. Munshun peels off Charles Burnside and discards him like a worn-out sock.
“But I WANT to kill him!” Burny screeches.
“Hee iz alreddy dud, dud, dud. Chack Zawyuh’s hardt iz go-ung do break. Chack Zawyuh vill nod know whud he iz do-ung. Vee go now du Muxtun’z and oho vee kull Chibbuh, yuzz? You vahhnd kull Chibbuh I ding, yuzz?”
Burny snickers. “Yeah. I vahhnd to kill Chipper. I vahhnd to slice that asshole into little pieces and chew on his bones. And if his snippy bitch is there, I want to cut off her head and suck her juicy little tongue down my throat.”
To Henry Leyden, this conversation sounds like insanity, demonic possession, or both. Blood continues to stream out of his back and from the ends of his mutilated fingers, and he is powerless to stop the flow. The smell of all the blood beneath and around him makes him feel nauseated, but nausea is the least of his problems. A light-headed sense of drift, of pleasing numbness ?? that is his real problem, and his best weapon against it is his own pain. He must remain conscious. Somehow, he must leave a message for Jack.
“Zo vee go now, Burn-Burn, and vee hahhv ah blesh-ah vid Chibbuh, yuzz? End denn . . . oho end denn, denn, denn vee go do de beeyoodiful bee-yoodiful Blagg Huzz, my Burn-Burn, end in Blagg Huzz vee mayyg reddy for de Grimsunn Ging!”
“I want to meet the Crimson King,” Burny says. A rope of drool sags from his mouth, and for an instant his eyes gleam in the darkness. “I’m gonna give the Marshall brat to the Crimson King, and the Crimson King is gonna love me, because all I’m gonna eat is like one little ass cheek, one little hand, something like that.”
“Hee vill lahhv you fuhr my zake, Burn-Burn, fuhr de Ging lahhvs mee bezzd, mee, mee, mee, Mizz-durr Munn-shunn! End venn de Ging roolz sooprumm, fogzes down fogzhulls veep and veep, dey gryy, gryy, gryy dere lid-dul hardz utt, on-cuzz you end mee, mee, mee, vee vull eed end eed end eed, eed, eed undill de vurrldz on all zydes are nudding bahd embdy bee-nudd shillz!”
“Empty peanut shells.” Burny chuckles, and noisily retracts another rope of slobber. “That’s a hell of a lot of eatin’.”
Any second now, Henry thinks, horrible old Burn-Burn is going to fork over a substantial down payment on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I’m coming,” says Burnside. “First I want to leave a message.”
There is a silence.
The next thing Henry hears is a curious whooshing sound and the joined smack-smacks of sodden footwear parting from a sticky floor. The door to the closet beneath the stairs bangs open; the studio door bangs shut. A smell of ozone comes and goes. They have gone; Henry does not know how it happened, but he feels certain that he is alone. Who cares how it happened? Henry has more important matters to think about. “Murr impurdund vurk,” he says aloud. “That guy’s a German like I’m a speckled hen.”
He crawls out from beneath the long table and uses its surface to lever himself up on his feet. When he straightens his back, his mind wobbles and goes gray, and he grasps a lampstand to stay upright. “Don’t pass out,” he says. “Passing out is not allowed, nope.”
Henry can walk, he is sure of it. He’s been walking most of his life, after all. Come to that, he can drive a car, too; driving is even easier than walking, only no one ever had the cojones to let him demonstrate his talents behind the wheel. Hell, if Ray Charles could drive ?? and he could, he can, Ray Charles is probably spinning into a left turn off the highway at this moment ?? why not Henry Leyden? Well, Henry does not happen to have an automobile available to him right now, so Henry is going to have to settle for taking a brisk walk. Well, as brisk as possible anyhow.
And where is Henry going on this delightful stroll through the blood-soaked living room? “Why,” he answers himself, “the answer is obvious. I am going to my studio. I feel like taking a stroll into my lovely little studio.”
His mind slides into gray once more, and gray is to be avoided. We have an antidote for the gray feeling, don’t we? Yes, we do: the antidote is a good sharp taste of pain. Henry slaps his good hand against the stumps of his severed fingers ?? whoo boy, yes indeed, whole arm sort of went up in flames there. Flaming arm, that will work. Sparks shooting white hot from burning fingers will get us to the studio.
Let those tears flow. Dead folks don’t cry.
“The smell of blood is like laughter,” Henry says. “Who said that? Somebody. It’s in a book. ?®The smell of blood was like laughter.’ Great line. Now put one foot in front of the other.”
When he reaches the short hallway to the studio, he leans against the wall for a moment. A wave of luxurious weariness begins at the center of his chest and laps through his body. He snaps his head up, blood from his torn cheek spattering the wall. “Keep talking, you dope. Talking to yourself isn’t crazy. It’s a wonderful thing to do. And guess what? It’s how you make your living ?? you talk to yourself all day long!”
Henry pushes himself off the wall, steps forward, and George Rath-bun speaks through his vocal cords. “Friends, and you ARE my friends, let me be clear about that, we here at KDCU-AM seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties. The power levels are sinking, and brownouts have been recorded, yes they have. Fear not, my dear ones. Fear not! Even as I speak, we are but four paltry feet from the studio door, and in no time at all, we shall be up and running, yessir. No ancient cannibal and his space-alien sidekick can put this station out of business, uh-UHH, not before we make our last and final broadcast.”
It is as if George Rathbun gives life to Henry Leyden, instead of the other way around. His back is straighter, and he holds his head upright. Two steps bring him to the closed studio door. “It’s a tough catch, my friends, and if Pokey Reese is going to snag that ball, his mitt had better be clean as a whistle. What is he doing out there, folks? Can we believe our eyes? Can he be shoving one hand into his pants pocket? Is he pulling something out? Man oh man, it causes the mind to reel Pokey is using THE OLD HANDKERCHIEF PLOY! That’s right! He is WIPING his mitt, WIPING his throwing hand, DROPPING the snotrag, GRABBING the handle And the door is OPEN! Pokey Reese has done it again, he is IN THE STUDIO!”
Henry winds the handkerchief around the ends of his fingers and fumbles for the chair. “And Rafael Furcal seems lost out there, the man is GROPING for the ball Wait, wait, does he have it? Has he caught an edge? YES! He has the ARM of the ball, he has the BACK of the ball, and he pulls it UP, ladies and gents, the ball is UP on its WHEELS! Furcal sits down, he pushes himself toward the console. We’re facing a lot of blood here, but baseball is a bloody game when they come at you with their CLEATS up.”
With the fingers of his left hand, from which most of the blood has been cleaned, Henry punches the ON switch for the big tape recorder and pulls the microphone close. He is sitting in the dark listening to the sound of tape hissing from reel to reel, and he feels oddly satisfied to be here, doing what he has done night after night for thousands of nights. Velvety exhaustion swims through his body and his mind, darkening whatever it touches. It is too early to yield. He will surrender soon, but first he must do his job. He must talk to Jack Sawyer by talking to himself, and to do that he calls upon the familiar spirits that give him voice.
George Rathbun: “Bottom of the ninth, and the home team is headed for the showers, pal. But the game ain’t OVER till the last BLIND man is DEAD!”
Henry Shake: “I’m talking to you, Jack Sawyer, and I don’t want you to flip out on me or nothin’. Keep cool and listen to your old friend Henry the Sheik the Shake the Shook, all right? The Fisherman paid me a visit, and when he left here he was on his way to Maxton’s. He wants to kill Chipper, the guy who owns the place. Call the police, save him if you can. The Fisherman lives at Maxton’s, did you know that? He’s an old man with a demon inside him. He wanted to stop me from telling you that I recognized his voice. And he wanted to mess with your feelings ?? he thinks he can screw you up by killing me. Don’t give him that satisfaction, all right?”
The Wisconsin Rat: “BECAUSE THAT WOULD REALLY SUCK! FISH-BRAINS WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU IN A PLACE CALLED BLACK HOUSE, AND YOU HAVE TO BE READY FOR THE BASTARD! RIP HIS NUTS OFF!”
The Rat’s buzz-saw voice ends in a fit of coughing.
Henry Shake, breathing hard: “Our friend the Rat was suddenly called away. The boy has a tendency to get overexcited.”
George Rathbun: “SON, are you trying to tell ME that ?? “
Henry Shake: “Calm down. Yes, he has a right to be excited. But Jack doesn’t want us to scream at him. Jack wants information.”
George Rathbun: “I reckon you better hurry up and give it to him, then.”
Henry Shake: “This is the deal, Jack. The Fisherman’s not very bright, and neither is his whatever, his demon, who’s called something like Mr. Munching. He’s incredibly vain, too.”
Henry Leyden folds back into the chair and stares at nothing for a second or two. He can feel nothing from the waist down, and blood from his right hand has pooled around the microphone. From the stumps of his fingers comes a steady, diminishing pulse.
George Rathbun: “Not now, Chuckles!”
Henry Leyden shakes his head and says, “Vain and stupid you can beat, my friend. I have to sign off now. Jack, you don’t have to feel too bad about me. I had a goddamn wonderful life, and I’m going to be with my darling Rhoda now.” He smiles in the darkness; his smile widens. “Ah, Lark. Hello.”
At times, it is possible for the smell of blood to be like laughter.
What is this, at the end of Nailhouse Row? A horde, a swarm of fat, buzzing things that circle and dart about Jack Sawyer, in the dying light seeming almost illuminated, like the radiant pages of a sacred text. Too small to be hummingbirds, they seem to carry their own individual, internal glow as they mesh through the air. If they are wasps, Jack Sawyer is going to be in serious trouble. Yet they do not sting; their round bodies brush his face and hands, blundering softly against his body as a cat will nudge its owner’s leg, both giving and receiving comfort.
At present, they give much more comfort than they receive, and even Jack cannot explain why this should be so. The creatures surrounding him are not wasps, hummingbirds, or cats, but they are bees, honeybees, and ordinarily he would be frightened to be caught in a swarm of bees. Especially if they appeared to be members of a sort of master bee race, superbees, larger than any he has seen before, their golds more golden, their blacks vibrantly black. Yet Jack is not frightened. If they were going to sting him, they would already have done it. And from the first, he understood that they meant him no harm. The touch of their many bodies is surpassingly smooth and soft; their massed buzzing is low and harmonious, as peaceable as a Protestant hymn. After the first few seconds, Jack simply lets it happen.
The bees sift even closer, and their low noise pulses in his ears. It sounds like speech, or like song. For a moment, all he can see is a tightly woven network of bees moving this way and that; then the bees settle everywhere on his body but the oval of his face. They cover his head like a helmet. They blanket his arms, his chest, his back, his legs. Bees land on his shoes and obscure them from view. Despite their number, they are almost weightless. The exposed parts of Jack’s body, his hands and neck, feel as though wrapped in cashmere. A dense, feather-light bee suit shimmers black and gold all over Jack Sawyer. He raises his arms, and the bees move with him.
Jack has seen photographs of beekeepers aswarm with bees, but this is no photograph and he is no beekeeper. His amazement ?? really, his sheer pleasure in the unexpectedness of this visitation ?? stuns him. For as long as the bees cling to him, he forgets Mouse’s terrible death and the next day’s fearsome task. What he does not forget is Sophie; he wishes Beezer and Doc would walk outside, so they could see what is happening, but more than that, he wishes Sophie could see it. Perhaps, by grace of d’yamba, she does. Someone is comforting Jack Sawyer, someone is wishing him well. A loving, invisible presence offers him support. It feels like a blessing, that support. Clothed in his glowing black-and-yellow bee suit, Jack has the idea that if he stepped toward the sky, he would be airborne. The bees would carry him over the valleys. They would carry him over the wrinkled hills. Like the winged men in the Territories who carried Sophie, he would fly. Instead of their two, he would have two thousand wings to bear him up.
In our world, Jack remembers, bees return to the hive before nightfall. As if reminded of their daily routine, the bees lift from Jack’s head, his trunk, his arms and legs, not en masse, like a living carpet, but individually and in parties of five and six, wander a short distance above him, then swirl around, shoot like bullets eastward over the houses on the inland side of Nailhouse Row, and disappear one and all into the same dark infinity. Jack becomes aware of their sound only when it disappears with them.
In the seconds before he can once again begin moving toward his truck, he has the feeling that someone is watching over him. He has been . . . what? It comes to him as he turns his key in the Ram’s ignition and flutters the gas pedal: he has been embraced.
Jack has no idea how much he will need the warmth of that embrace, nor of the manner in which it shall be returned to him, during the coming night.
First of all, he is exhausted. He has had the kind of day that should end in a surreal event like an embrace by a swarm of bees: Sophie, Wendell Green, Judy Marshall, Parkus ?? that cataclysm, that deluge! ?? and the strange death of Mouse Baumann, these things have stretched him taut, left him gasping. His body aches for rest. When he leaves French Landing and drives into the wide, dark countryside, he is tempted to pull over to the side of the road and catch a half-hour nap. The deepening night promises the refreshment of sleep, and that is the problem: he could wind up sleeping in the truck all night, which would leave him feeling bleary and arthritic on a day when he must be at his best.
Right now, he is not at his best ?? not by a longshot, as his father, Phil Sawyer, used to say. Right now he is running on fumes, another of Phil Sawyer’s pet expressions, but he figures that he can stay awake long enough to visit Henry Leyden. Maybe Henry cut a deal with the guy from ESPN ?? maybe Henry will move into a wider market and make a lot more money. Henry in no way needs any more money than he has, for Henry’s life seems flawless, but Jack likes the idea of his dear friend Henry suddenly flush with cash. A Henry with extra money to throw around is a Henry Jack would love to see. Imagine the wondrous clothes he could afford! Jack pictures going to New York with him, staying in a nice hotel like the Carlyle or the St. Regis, walking him through half a dozen great men’s stores, helping him pick out whatever he wants.
Just about everything looks good on Henry. He seems to improve all the clothes he wears, no matter what they are, but he has definite, particular tastes. Henry likes a certain classic, even old-fashioned, stylishness. He often dresses himself in pinstripes, windowpane plaids, herringbone tweeds. He likes cotton, linen, and wool. He sometimes wears bow ties, ascots, and little handkerchiefs that puff out of his breast pocket. On his feet, he puts penny loafers, wing tips, cap toes, and low boots of soft, fine leather. He never wears sneakers or jeans, and Jack has never seen him in a T-shirt that has writing on it. The question was, how did a man blind from birth evolve such a specific taste in clothing?
Oh, Jack realizes, it was his mother. Of course. He got his taste from his mother.
For some reason, this recognition threatens to bring tears to Jack’s eyes. I get too emotional when I get this tired, he says to himself. Watch out, or you’ll go overboard. But diagnosing a problem is not the same as fixing it, and he cannot follow his own advice. That Henry Leyden all of his life should have held to his mother’s ideas about men’s clothing strikes Jack as beautiful and moving. It implies a kind of loyalty he admires ?? unspoken loyalty. Henry probably got a lot from his mother: his quick-wittedness, his love of music, his levelheadedness, his utter lack of self-pity. Levelheadedness and lack of self-pity are a great combination, Jack thinks; they go a long way toward defining courage.
For Henry is courageous, Jack reminds himself. Henry is damn near fearless. It’s funny, how he talks about being able to drive a car, but Jack feels certain that, if allowed, his friend would unhesitatingly jump behind the wheel of the nearest Chrysler, start the engine, and take off for the highway. He would not exult or show off, such behavior being foreign to his nature; Henry would nod toward the windshield and say things like, “Looks like the corn is nice and tall for this time of year,” and “I’m glad Duane finally got around to painting his house.” And the corn would be tall, and Duane Updahl would have recently painted his house, information delivered to Henry by his mysterious sensory systems.
Jack decides that if he makes it out of Black House alive, he will give Henry the opportunity to take the Ram out for a spin. They might wind up nose-down in a ditch, but it will be worth it for the expression on Henry’s face. Some Saturday afternoon, he’ll get Henry out on Highway 93 and let him drive to the Sand Bar. If Beezer and Doc do not get savaged by weredogs and survive their journey to Black House, they ought to have the chance to enjoy Henry’s conversation, which, odd as it seems, is perfectly suited to theirs. Beezer and Doc should know Henry Leyden, they’d love the guy. After a couple of weeks, they’d have him up on a Harley, swooping toward Norway Valley from Centralia.
If only Henry could come with them to Black House. The thought pierces Jack with the sadness of an inspired idea that can never be put into practice. Henry would be brave and unfaltering, Jack knows, but what he most likes about the idea is that he and Henry would ever after be able to talk about what they had done. Those talks ?? the two of them, in one living room or another, snow piling on the roof ?? would be wonderful, but Jack cannot endanger Henry that way.
“That’s a stupid thing to think about,” Jack says aloud, and realizes that he regrets not having been completely open and unguarded with Henry ?? that’s where the stupid worry comes from, his stubborn silence. It isn’t what he will be unable to say in the future; it’s what he failed to say in the past. He should have been honest with Henry from the start. He should have told him about the red feathers and the robins’ eggs and his gathering uneasiness. Henry would have helped him open his eyes; he would have helped Jack resolve his own blindness, which was more damaging than Henry’s.
All of that is over, Jack decides. No more secrets. Since he is lucky enough to have Henry’s friendship, he will demonstrate that he values it. From now on, he will tell Henry everything, including the background: the Territories, Speedy Parker, the dead man on the Santa Monica Pier, Tyler Marshall’s baseball cap. Judy Marshall. Sophie. Yes, he has to tell Henry about Sophie ?? how can he not have done so already? Henry will rejoice with him, and Jack cannot wait to see how he does it. Henry’s rejoicing will be unlike anyone else’s; Henry will impart some delicate, cool, good-hearted topspin to the expression of his delight, thereby increasing Jack’s own delight. What an incredible, literally incredible friend! If you were to describe Henry to someone who had never met him, he would sound unbelievable. Someone like that, living alone in an outback of the boonies? But there he was, all alone in the entirely obscure area of Norway Valley, French County, Wisconsin, waiting for the latest installment of Bleak House. By now, in anticipation of Jack’s arrival, he would have turned on the lights in his kitchen and living room, as he had done for years in honor of his dead, much-loved wife.
Jack thinks: I must not be so bad, if I have a friend like that.
And he thinks: I really adore Henry.
Now, even in the darkness, everything seems beautiful to him. The Sand Bar, ablaze with neon lights in its vast expanse of parking lot; the spindly, intermittent trees picked out by his headlights after the turn onto 93; the long, invisible fields; the glowing light bulbs hung like Christmas decorations from the porch of Roy’s Store. The rattle over the first bridge and the sharp turn into the depths of the valley. Set back from the left side of the road, the first of the farmhouses gleam in the darkness, the lights in their windows burning like sacramental candles. Everything seems touched by a higher meaning, everything seems to speak. He is traveling, within a hush of sacred silence, through a sacred grove. Jack remembers when Dale first drove him into this valley, and that memory is sacred, too.
Jack does not know it, but tears are coursing down his cheeks. His blood sings in his veins. The pale farmhouses shine half-hidden by the darkness, and out of that darkness leans the stand of tiger lilies that greeted him on his first down-valley journey. The tiger lilies blaze in his headlights, then slip murmuring behind him. Their lost speech joins the speech of the tires rolling eagerly, gently toward Henry Leyden’s warm house. Tomorrow he may die, Jack knows, and this may be the last night he will ever see. That he must win does not mean that he will win; proud empires and noble epochs have gone down in defeat, and the Crimson King may burst out of the Tower and rage through world after world, spreading chaos.
They could all die in Black House: he, Beezer, and Doc. If that happens, Tyler Marshall will be not only a Breaker, a slave chained to an oar in a timeless Purgatory, but a super-Breaker, a nuclear-powered Breaker the abbalah will use to turn all the worlds into furnaces filled with burning corpses. Over my dead body, Jack thinks, and laughs a little crazily ?? it’s so literal!
What an extraordinary moment; he is laughing while he rubs tears off his face. The paradox suddenly makes him feel as though he is being torn in half. Beauty and terror, beauty and pain ?? there is no way out of the conundrum. Exhausted, strung out, Jack cannot hold off his awareness of the world’s essential fragility, its constant, unstoppable movement toward death, or the deeper awareness that in that movement lies the source of all its meaning. Do you see all this heart-stopping beauty? Look closely, because in a moment your heart will stop.
In the next second, he remembers the swarm of golden bees that descended upon him: it was against this that they comforted him, exactly this, he tells himself. The blessing of blessings that vanish. What you love, you must love all the harder because someday it will be gone. It felt true, but it did not feel like all of the truth.
Against the vastness of the night, he sees the giant shape of the Crimson King holding aloft a small boy to use as a burning glass that will ignite the worlds into flaming waste. What Parkus said was right: he cannot destroy the giant, but he may find it possible to rescue the boy.
The bees said: Save Ty Marshall.
The bees said: Love Henry Leyden.
The bees said: Love Sophie.
That is close enough, right enough, for Jack. To the bees, these were all the same sentence. He supposes that the bees might well also have said, Do your job, coppiceman, and that sentence was only slightly different. Well, he would do his job, all right. After having been given such a miracle, he could do nothing else.
His heart warms as he turns up Henry’s drive. What was Henry but another kind of miracle?
Tonight, Jack gleefully resolves, he is going to give the amazing Henry Leyden a thrill he will never forget. Tonight, he will tell Henry the whole story, the entire long tale of the journey he took in his twelfth year: the Blasted Lands, Rational Richard, the Agincourt, and the Talisman. He will not leave out the Oatley Tap and the Sunlight Home, for these travails will get Henry wonderfully worked up. And Wolf! Henry is going to be crazy about Wolf; Wolf will tickle him right down to the soles of his chocolate-brown suede loafers. As Jack speaks, every word he says will be an apology for having been silent for so long.
And when he has finished telling the whole story, telling it at least as well as he can, the world, this world, will have been transformed, for one person in it besides himself will know everything that happened. Jack can barely imagine what it will feel like to have the dam of his loneliness so obliterated, so destroyed, but the very thought of it floods him with the anticipation of relief.
Now, this is strange . . . Henry has not turned on his lights, and his house looks dark and empty. He must have fallen asleep.
Smiling, Jack turns off the engine and gets out of the pickup’s cab. Experience tells him that he won’t get more than three paces into the living room before Henry rouses himself and pretends that he has been awake all along. Once, when Jack found him in the dark like this, he said, “I was just resting my eyes.” So what is it going to be tonight? He was planning his Lester Young?CCharlie Parker birthday tribute, and he found it easier to concentrate this way? He was thinking about frying up some fish, and he wanted to see if food tasted different if you cooked it in the dark? Whatever it is, it’ll be entertaining. And maybe they will celebrate Henry’s new deal with ESPN!
“Henry?” Jack raps on the door, then opens it and leans in. “Henry, you faker, are you asleep?”
Henry does not respond, and Jack’s question falls into a soundless void. He can see nothing. The room is a two-dimensional pane of blackness. “Hey, Henry, I’m here. And boy, do I have a story for you!”
More dead silence. “Huh,” Jack says, and steps inside. Immediately, his instincts scream that he should get out, take off, scram. But why should he feel that? This is just Henry’s house, that’s all; he has been inside it hundreds of times before, and he knows Henry has either fallen asleep on his sofa or walked over to Jack’s house, which come to think of it is probably exactly what happened. Henry got a terrific offer from the ESPN representative, and in his excitement ?? for even Henry Leyden can get excited, you just have to look a little closer than you do with most people ?? decided to surprise Jack at his house. When Jack failed to arrive by five or six, he decided to wait for him. And right now, he is probably sound asleep on Jack’s sofa, instead of his own.
All of this is plausible, but it does not alter the message blasting from Jack’s nerve endings. Go! Leave! You don’t want to be here!
He calls Henry’s name again, and his response is the silence he expects.
The transcendent mood that had carried him down the valley has already disappeared, but he never noted its passing, merely that it is a thing of the past. If he were still a homicide detective, this is the moment when he would unholster his weapon. Jack steps quietly into the living room. Two strong odors come to him. One is the scent of perfume, and the other . . .
He knows what the other one is. Its presence here means that Henry is dead. The part of Jack that is not a cop argues that the smell of blood means no such thing. Henry may have been wounded in a fight, and the Fisherman could have taken him across worlds, as he did with Tyler Marshall. Henry may be trussed up in some pocket of the Territories, salted away to be used as a bargaining chip, or as bait. He and Ty might be side by side, waiting for rescue.
Jack knows that none of this is true. Henry is dead, and the Fisherman killed him. It is his job now to find the body. He’s a coppiceman; he has to act like one. That the last thing in the world he wants to do is look at Henry’s corpse does not change the nature of his task. Sorrow comes in many forms, but the kind of sorrow that has been building within Jack Sawyer feels as if it is made of granite. It slows his step and clenches his jaw. When he moves to his left and reaches for the light switch, this stony sorrow directs his hand to the right spot on the wall as surely as if he were Henry.
Because he is looking at the wall when the lights go on, only his peripheral vision takes in the interior of the room, and the damage does not seem as extensive as he had feared. A lamp has been toppled, a chair knocked over. But when Jack turns his head, two aspects of Henry’s living room sear themselves onto his retinas. The first is a red slogan on the cream-colored opposite wall; the second, the sheer amount of blood on the floor. The bloodstains are like a map of Henry’s progress into and back out of the room. Gouts of blood like those left by a wounded animal begin at the hallway and trail, accompanied by many loops and spatters, to the back of the Mission sofa, where blood lies pooled. Another large pool covers the hardwood floor beneath the long, low table where Henry sometimes used to park his portable CD player and stack the evening’s CDs. From the table, another series of splashes and gouts lead back into the hallway. To Jack, it looks as though Henry must have been very low on blood when he felt safe enough to crawl out from under the table. If that is the way it went.
While Henry lay dead or dying, the Fisherman had taken something made of cloth ?? his shirt? a handkerchief ? ?? and used it like a fat, unwieldy paintbrush. He had dipped it in the blood behind the sofa, raised it dripping to the wall, and daubed a few letters. Then he’d repeated and repeated the action until he had wiped the last letter of his message onto the wall.
HELLO HOLLYWOOD CUM GET MEE
CK CK CK CK
But the Crimson King had not written the taunting initials, and neither had Charles Burnside. They had been daubed on the wall by the Fisherman’s master, whose name, in our ears, sounds like Mr. Munshun.
Don’t worry, I’ll come for you soon enough, Jack thinks.
At this point, he could not be criticized for walking outside, where the air does not reek of blood and perfume, and using his cell phone to call Sumner Street. Maybe Bobby Dulac is on duty. He might even find Dale still at the station. To fulfill all of his civic obligations, he need speak only eight or nine words. After that, he could pocket the cell phone and sit on Henry’s front steps until the guardians of law and order come barreling up the long drive. There would be a lot of them, at least four cars, maybe five. Dale would have to call the troopers, and Brown and Black might feel obliged to call the FBI. In about forty-five minutes, Henry’s living room would be crowded with men taking measurements, writing in their notebooks, setting down evidence tags, and photographing bloodstains. There would be the M.E. and the evidence wagon. And when the first stage of everybody’s various jobs came to an end, two men in white jackets would carry a stretcher through the front door and load the stretcher into whatever the hell they were driving.
Jack does not consider this option for much longer than a couple of seconds. He wants to see what the Fisherman and Mr. Munshun did to Henry ?? he has to see it, he has no choice. His grim sorrow demands it, and if he does not obey his sorrow’s commands, he will never feel quite whole again.
His sorrow, which is closed like a steel vault around his love for Henry Leyden, drives him deeper into the room. Jack moves slowly, picking his way forward the way a man crossing a stream moves from rock to rock. He is looking for the bare places where he can set his feet. From across the room, dripping red letters eight inches high mock his progress.
It seems to wink on and off, like a neon sign. HELLO HOLLYWOOD HELLO HOLLYWOOD.
CUM GET MEE
CUM GET MEE
He wants to curse, but the weight of his sorrow will not permit him to utter the words that float into his mind. At the end of the hallway to the studio and the kitchen, Jack steps over a long smear of blood and turns his back on the living room and the distracting flashes of neon. The light penetrates only three or four feet into the hallway. The kitchen is solid, featureless darkness. The studio door hangs half open, and reflected light shines softly in its window.
Blood lies spattered and smeared everywhere on the floor of the hallway. He can no longer avoid stepping in it but moves down the hallway with his eyes on the gaping studio door. Henry Leyden never left this door yawning into the little corridor;he kept it closed. Henry was neat. He had to be: if he left the studio door hanging open, he would walk right into it the next time he went to the kitchen. The mess, the disorder left in his wake by Henry’s murderer disturbs Jack more than he wishes to admit, maybe even more than he recognizes. This messiness represents a true violation, and, on his friend’s behalf, Jack hugely resents it.
He reaches the door, touches it, opens it wider. A concentrated stench of perfume and blood hangs in the air. Nearly as dark as the kitchen, the studio offers Jack only the dim shape of the console and the murky rectangles of the speakers fixed to the wall. The window into the kitchen hovers like a black sheet, invisible. His hand still on the door, Jack moves nearer and sees, or thinks he sees, the back of a tall chair and a shape stretched over the desk in front of the console. Only then does he hear the whup-whup-whup of tape hitting the end of a reel.
“Ohmygod,” Jack says, all in one word, as if he had all along not been expecting something precisely like what is before him. With a terrible, insistent certainty, the sound of the tape drives home the fact that Henry is dead. Jack’s sorrow overrides his chickenhearted desire to go outside and call every cop in the state of Wisconsin by compelling him to grope for the light switch. He cannot leave; he must witness, as he did with Irma Freneau.
His fingers brush against the down-ticked plastic switch and settle on it. Into the back of his throat rises a sour, brassy taste. He flicks the switch up, and light floods the studio.
Henry’s body leans out of the tall leather chair and over the desk, his hands on either side of his prize microphone, his face flattened on its left side. He is still wearing his dark glasses, but one of the thin metal bows is bent. At first, everything seems to have been painted red, for the nearly uniform coat of blood covering the desk has been dripping onto Henry’s lap and the tops of his thighs for some time, and all the equipment has been sprayed with red. Part of Henry’s cheek has been bitten off. He is missing two fingers from his right hand. To Jack’s eyes, which have been taking an inventory as they register all the details of the room, most of Henry’s blood loss came from a wound in his back. Blood-soaked clothing conceals the injury, but as much blood lies pooled, dripping, at the back of the chair as covers the desk. Most of the blood on the floor came from the chair. The Fisherman must have sliced an internal organ, or severed an artery.
Very little blood, apart from a fine mist over the controls, has hit the tape recorder. Jack can hardly remember how these machines work, but he has seen Henry change reels often enough to have a sense of what to do. He turns the recorder off and threads the end of the tape into the empty reel. Then he turns the machine on and pushes REWIND. The tape glides smoothly over the heads, spooling from one reel to the other.
“Did you make a tape for me, Henry?” Jack asks. “I bet you did, but I hope you didn’t die telling me what I already know.”
The tape clicks to a stop. Jack pushes PLAY and holds his breath.
In all his bull-necked, red-faced glory, George Rathbun booms from the speakers. “Bottom of the ninth, and the home team is headed for the showers, pal. But the game ain’t OVER till the last BLIND man is DEAD!”
Jack sags against the wall.
Henry Shake enters the room and tells him to call Maxton’s. The Wisconsin Rat sticks his head in and screams about Black House. The Sheik the Shake the Shook and George Rathbun have a short debate, which the Shake wins. It is too much for Jack; he cannot stop his tears, and he does not bother to try. He lets them come. Henry’s last performance moves him enormously. It is so bountiful, so pure ?? so purely Henry. Henry Leyden kept himself alive by calling on his alternate selves, and they did the job. They were a faithful crew, George and the Shake and the Rat, and they went down with the ship, not that they had much choice. Henry Leyden reappears, and in a voice that grows fainter with each phrase, says that Jack can beat vain and stupid. Henry’s dying voice says he had a wonderful life. His voice drops to a whisper and utters three words filled to the brim with gratified surprise: Ah, Lark. Hello. Jack can hear the smile in those words.
Weeping, Jack staggers out of the studio. He wants to collapse into a chair and cry until he has no more tears, but he cannot fail either himself or Henry so greatly. He moves down the hallway, wipes his eyes, and waits for the stony sorrow to help him deal with his grief. It will help him deal with Black House, too. The sorrow is not to be deterred or deflected; it works like steel in his spine.
The ghost of Henry Shake whispers: Jack, this sorrow is never going to leave you. Are you down with that?
?? Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just as long as you know. Wherever you go, whatever you do. Through every door. With every woman. If you have children, with your children. You’ll hear it in all the music you listen to, you’ll see it in every book you read. It will be part of the food you eat. With you forever. In all the worlds. In Black House.
?? I am it, and it is me.
George Rathbun’s whisper is twice as loud as the Sheik the Shake the Shook’s: Well, damnit, son, can I hear you say D’YAMBA?
I reckon now you know why the bees embraced you. Don’t you have a telephone call to make?
Yes, he does. But he cannot bear to be in this blood-soaked house any longer; he needs to be out in the warm summer night. Letting his feet land where they may, Jack walks across the ruined living room and passes through the doorway. His sorrow walks with him, for he is it and it is he. The enormous sky hangs far above him, pierced with stars. Out comes the trusty cell phone.
And who answers the telephone at the French Landing Police Station? Arnold “Flashlight” Hrabowski, of course, with a new nickname and just reinstated as a member of the force. Jack’s news puts Flashlight Hrabowski in a state of high agitation. What? Gosh! Oh, no. Oh, who woulda believed it? Gee. Yeah, yessir. I’ll take care of that right away, you bet.
So while the former Mad Hungarian tries to keep both his hands and voice from trembling as he dials the chief’s home number and passes on Jack’s two-sided message, Jack himself wanders away from the house, away from the drive and his pickup truck, away from anything that reminds him of human beings, and into a meadow filled with high, yellow-green grasses. His sorrow leads him, for his sorrow knows better than he what he needs.
Above all, he needs rest. Sleep, if sleep is possible. A soft spot on level ground far from the coming uproar of red lights and sirens and furious, hyperactive policemen. Far from all that desperation. A place where a man can lay his head and get a representative view of the local heavens. Half a mile down the fields, Jack comes to such a place between a cornfield and the rocky beginnings of the wooded hills. His sorrowing mind tells his sorrowing, exhausted body to lie down and make itself comfortable, and his body obeys. Overhead, the stars seem to vibrate and blur, though of course real stars in the familiar, real heavens do not act that way, so it must be an optical illusion. Jack’s body stretches out, and the pad of grass and topsoil beneath his body seems to adjust itself around him, although this, too, must be an illusion, for everyone knows that in real life, the actual ground tends to be obdurate, inflexible, and stony. Jack Sawyer’s sorrowing mind tells his sorrowing ache of a body to fall asleep, and impossible as it may seem, fall asleep it does.
Within minutes, Jack Sawyer’s sleeping body undergoes a subtle transformation. Its edges seem to soften, its colors ?? his wheaten hair, his light tan jacket, his soft brown shoes ?? grow paler. An odd translucency, a mistiness or cloudiness, enters the process. It is as if we can peer through the cloudy, indistinct mass of his slow-breathing body to see the soft, crushed blades of grass that form its mattress. The longer we peer, the more clearly we can take in the grass beneath him, for his body is getting vaguer and vaguer. At last it is only a shimmer over the grass, and by the time the Jack-shaped pad of green has again straightened itself, the body that shaped it is long gone.